Thursday, October 21, 2021

Cold Morning Engine (a return to a process)



I’m working on a new book. 

I’ve been woking on it for quite awhile, actually. I’ve filled a notebook full of doodles and scenes, characters and thoughts. And I’ve written the script. That’s the first really huge step. It’s less that 12K words, but it took a long time and several drafts. I’ve drawn reams of concept art and creature design. I’ve had long calls with my editor and gathered feedback from trusted creator-friends (and my family!) and now… 

Now I’m finally sitting down to draw the thumbnails. 

That’s the second really huge step. 

Drawing thumbnails means I’m laying out the whole book, in miniature, based on my script. In film terms this is when you've got your script and your now shooting principal photography. 

A thumbnail page looks something like this (from Mighty Jack and the Goblin King):

Or this (from Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl):

It’s a fun, but intense part of the process—a time of calming music and deep focus. Scratch, scratch, scratch goes my stubby pencil. Scrub, scrub, scrub goes my eraser. Then scratch, scratch scratch again. 

Drawing finished pages is, by comparison, mentally easier but physically more difficult (to extend the film analogy, drawing finished pages is post production–get rid of all that green screen!). Drawing finished pages makes my wrist hurt, but I can listen to podcasts while I do it.  Not so with thumbnails

It’s been awhile since I’ve been in this place. The last time I started roughing out a book was March of 2018. I was visiting Portland Maine and a surprise blizzard had trapped me, all alone, in a cabin outside of town. That was when I roughed in the opening chapter of Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl. So I’m easing myself back into the rhythm of this part of the process. 

Luckily, it seems like half my best friends are roughing out their books right now, which gives me a sense of solidarity. (and just maybe a slight sense of competition, which is also helpful). 

Some artists create very beautiful thumbnails. Mine, as you can see, tend to be barely legible. I’m working fast and loose, mostly in pencil, on recycled printer paper, with a lot of scrubbing out and redrawing and notes and arrows leading to multiple angles and options. Lots of crumpling up pages and starting over. 

One of the aims, at this stage, is to preserve a sense of mutability. Another aim, for me, is to focus more on the rhythm of the pages, and the beats of the story, rather than get caught up in the details. It’s about moments and page-turns and flow. 

Plus, the first dozen or so pages are probably going to get redone, so the first goal is to fall into the particular design and layout rhythms of this book. Right now the aim is to just go. Move forward. Keep moving. Create momentum.

And when I’m finally done with this phase I’m going to trust that the big stack of thumbnail pages will be just readable enough that I can walk my editor through it, panel by panel, on a long phone call. 

Anyway. It’s exciting. There’s some ambitious stuff in this book, visually and structurally. Stuff I’ve never really done before. 

Gosh I hope this goes well. 

Deep breaths.